In the autumnal opening section of Anne Stevenson's book-length elegy A Lament for the Makers (2006), ‘the season of deciduous souls’ provokes a sobering thought about the endurance of poetry:
A last, late finger of grace
still brightens far reaches
of a barbarous empire
lyrically and lovingly.
Most of what we write
time will erase.
Such small comfort as can be gleaned from this world of decay comes from the word ‘lyrically’, which signals the poem's self-representation as a ‘last, late finger of grace’ before the dying of the light. The word ‘grace’ connotes secular sanctification: poetry has replaced religion and does religion's work, although it now risks going the way of religion into obsolescence. Despite her worry, Stevenson enacts the Lament's continuing faith in lyrical light by reserving for this passage some of her most exquisite images: ‘gold smoulder[s] to umber’ in a ‘reredos of beeches’ illuminated ‘with Byzantine fire’. (The ‘reredos’ suggests and displaces religion again.) But notwithstanding the gorgeous conflagration, the year is inevitably ‘darkening’. By alluding to Dunbar, Stevenson's title recognises that poets have no special dispensation to be spared the way of all flesh: ‘Sparit is nocht ther faculte’, the poem's epigraph quotes from its medieval predecessor.
Even the consoling survival of poetry cannot be assumed. As Stevenson explains in interview, she writes her Lament as an elegy not only for poets but for poetry itself – ‘at least for the kind of poetry that, at my lowest ebb, I imagine is about to disappear from Western civilisation’. The Lament invokes a poetic tradition which, un appreciated by our ‘barbarous empire’, appears at once to be dying and vibrantly alive. Larkin's shade has been enlisted to assert a lack of belief that ‘the future, / now, has any time for verse’, but the poem's overt pessimism is everywhere resisted by the glory of its own achievement. However, in one crucial respect Stevenson has distorted the evidence. The opening section ends with a sudden tonal shift from the richly burnished to the flatly expository, from ‘gold’ and ‘grace’ to deliberate bathos: ‘Most of what we write / time will erase’. Shakespeare was merely accurate to boast that his work would outlive marble and gilded monuments, but few poems can hope for such longevity.